Karen and I have been working with the amazing Charlie Pullinger from the TUC North West to produce a series of monthly webinars on different bitesize topics: Mental Health Matters. Everyone is welcome and each session focuses on a different aspect of mental health with a spotlight on personal experience alongside supporting organisations to signpost help.
And so to my own personal experience. A recent webinar we held on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) made me realise I should practise what I preach about talking openly about my own mental health. Women in senior lay positions in trade unions sometimes fear that no ‘weakness’ can be shown, but this only helps to perpetuate the stigma.
When I was 18 years old, I was walking near my parents’ house with my then boyfriend and two other male friends. We were ‘alternative’ looking and were well used to having things shouted at us and thrown at us just for being different. We experienced an unprovoked violent attack from a group of younger drug-fuelled teenagers. Without wanting to go into too much graphic detail, I had to watch on, helpless, while my lovely pals were viciously and repeatedly beaten and kicked, whilst I was being held by the throat in close proximity to a screwdriver.
This incident pre-dated the murder of Sophie Lancaster in Bacup by a few years and this tragedy had a huge impact on me, my friends and my family, as you might imagine. The work the Sophie Lancaster Foundation have done since is nothing short of incredible; give them a follow on your socials.
I started to learn to live with anxiety; I wasn’t one to share with others and had always been quite a nervous and shy person so I think people just presumed it was part of my personality. I was determined not to let anxiety stop me doing things but it sucked the enjoyment out of everything. I would still go to punk and metal gigs in Manchester but would spend the whole gig planning our journey home: what if we were attacked walking down Oxford Road? Or on the Metrolink? Or on the short walk home from the station? The thoughts were a constant negative cycle and they ruined everything that should have been fun. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, expecting the same incident to happen time and time again.
I had never heard of PTSD and had no idea that this was what I was experiencing until years later. I went to France for my period abroad as part of my undergraduate degree and I started to have panic attacks; sometimes I would wake in the night shaking uncontrollably and I had no idea why. I ended up in a French hospital with a suspected asthma attack (enter GCSE role play scenario). I really didn’t put it together with the traumatic incident I had experienced years earlier; I thought I was just having breathing difficulties.
PTSD statistically affects one in four people and it can rear its ugly head pretty much at random. It’s hard not to feel ‘weak’ or like you’re overreacting when those who were also there seemed fine. It was much, much later that I found out that my boyfriend wasn’t fine either; he too had been psychologically affected by the incident. If we had talked more openly about it at the time, maybe we would both have recovered sooner.
As confronting as it is to bare my darkest secret like this, I’m doing it to show support and solidarity to others and as an opportunity to repeat the adage: it’s okay not to be okay. I had years of counselling and I am so much better; any bouts of anxiety are mild and I now have the strategies at my fingertips to deal with them. Mental health conditions actually have really good recovery rates. There is hope.
So let’s continue to talk about mental health, encourage our fellow workers, friends and family to do the same. Let’s continue to hold our employers to account for their legal and moral responsibilities in this area; prevention is better than cure. Let’s proactively reduce the stigma that still exists. And if we do, we really can save lives.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, you must seek help. Talk to someone you trust, go to your GP and access some of the excellent support organisations out there. To name but a few:
Zero Suicide Alliance: https://www.zerosuicidealliance.com/
Education Support: https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/
Hub of Hope (directory of support services): https://hubofhope.co.uk/
Want to hear about our latest news and blogs?
Sign up now to get it straight to your inbox
To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).